The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) is a centre within University of Oxford's Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences led by Professor Carl Heneghan, a GP and clinical epidemiologist. Prior to the pandemic, CEBM had a fine reputation as a one-stop-shop providing doctors with information on treatment options and their efficacy, free of the potential bias inherent in publications by pharmaceutical companies.
During the course of the pandemic Heneghan and Tom Jefferson have written a large number of pieces in the Spectator and Telegraph.
In spring 2020 they produced flawed estimates of the fatality ratio of Covid, which were far too low. In summer and autumn 2020 they pushed the idea that rising numbers of cases were really false positives and in September suggested Covid was in reality "waning fast". In October the pair gave a counterpoint to "dire warnings" that hospital admissions were rising, suggesting this was normal seasonal variation. In late October they said that excess deaths remained low, even as they began to rise significantly in reality. They then stopped discussing the issue.
During the course of the year Heneghan became a strong opponent and critic of most measures taken to control the virus. He attacked the rule of six ("no scientific evidence to back it up"), hospitality restrictions ("pubs and restaurants are one of the safest places to be"). He opposed local tiered restrictions, and opposed national restrictions too. He claims that "wearing masks in the community does not significantly reduce the rates of infection" (a flawed claim discussed here).
At the start of the pandemic, Heneghan's initial analyses in the BMJ were fairly measured. A key epidemiological question was what proportion of cases died from the new disease, and his article highlighted the difficulty in knowing exactly what the correct number of cases to divide the deaths by were, and praised the public health measures at that time.
However, within weeks, despite the emerging evidence of an IFR between 0.5% and 1% this prudent uncertainty had been replaced by certainty:
This estimate had been taken by taking the lowest case fatality rate in Europe, without adjustment for any delay between infection and death, assuming no asymptomatic cases were being captured by testing, and thus diving both the CFR and the estimate by two.
Already, the team were producing work which ignored the mounting evidence of higher fatality rates - which they had reviewed - in favour of finger-in-the-air guesswork. A week later, this guesswork had become worse, with the addition of a further epicycle:
This departure from Evidence Based Medicine and into motivated guesswork and politics was, sadly, just the start. A week later, Heneghan and Jefferson published a piece entitled The Tipping Point, taking the unarguable point that not all cases were being captured by (at the time) limited testing to argue against lockdowns from an economic and government debt perspective:
As summer began, the evidentiary basis for Heneghan and Jefferson's claims continued to deteriorate. Jefferson claimed the virus could have appeared from nothing, due to "human density or environmental conditions", claiming Western Samoans died of Spanish flu in 1918 despite no communication with the outside world; when a modicum of research would have indicated that Western Samoa caught the disease from a trading vessel. Outside of CEBM, Heneghan was claiming that "the current epidemic is a late seasonal effect in the Northern Hemisphere on the back of a mild ILI season".
Unfortunately, cases were soon on the rise again. Heneghan argued first that the rise in cases being observed was driven by an epidemic of false positives. In the Spectator he warned that the problem of false positives was so serious that Covid "might never be shown to disappear"
In early August he wrote a piece in the Spectator headlined: "Why Covid cases in England aren’t actually rising", which argued that the apparent rise in postive tests was merely due to more testing and false positives.
Heneghan and Jefferson followed this with a piece in the Spectator on 13 August headlined: "Could mass testing for Covid-19 do more harm than good?" They argued that:
On 1 Sepember, they wrote a piece in the Spectator headlined: "Coronavirus cases are mounting but deaths remain stable. Why?" Though cases were rising, they argued real circulation was "waning fast" and that PCR testing was just picking up "harmless virus particles":
On 7 September the pair wrote in the Spectator ("Covid-19 and the end of clinical medicine as we know it") complaining that positive tests had become meaningless, and about:
In a further piece for the Spectator in October, ("Following the evidence for hospital admissions", which seems to have previously had a different title) the questioned whether we should rely on "dire warnings" that hospital admissions were rising, suggesting this was normal seasonal variation. We must not, they said, "jump to inappropriate conclusions". Covid admissions were, if anything, half what might be expected:
On 14 September Heneghan wrote a piece in the Telegraph headlined: "Boris Johnson must bin the ‘rule of six’ and stop panicking":